In times of COVID-19, the trust developed by the Panchayati Raj Institutions has aided the Govt’s efforts to test, trace and treat people and contain the crisis in rural areas
The spirit of decentralisation runs deep within the consciousness of India. Local governance had been at the core of functioning of the country’s rural and urban administration even before it was mandated by the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments in 1992. At present, there are 2.5 lakh gram panchayats, over six lakh villages, around 4,500 Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) and 4,000 census towns in the country. Being at the forefront of rural governance, panchayats have borne the brunt yet stood resilient amid the COVID-19 outbreak. It is important to note that they have played a pivotal role in saving lives even before the pandemic, because women members of panchayats help in building trust among the village folk and the healthcare providers, the locals wary of visiting doctors.
These women even helped the doctors and nurses to explain to the villagers the diseases they were suffering from and the treatment protocols in a language they understood. Consequently, the number of villagers availing medical services without fear or anxiety increased exponentially over the years. In times of COVID-19, the trust developed by the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) has aided the Union and State Governments’ efforts to test, trace and treat people and contain the crisis in rural areas to a very large extent.
This, in the words of Professor James Manor, an expert on the study of decentralisation in India, would further deepen accountability and transparency at the grassroots, drawing ordinary people in villages into democratic processes to pursue their rights and contribute towards poverty alleviation. According to Manor, the world has a lot to learn from the Indian panchayat system. He exemplifies how Britain is centralising the system to tackle the contagion, which in turn is costing the lives of people even as the neutrality of local councils is being ignored. In a similar manner, the decentralisation system has been weakened in South Africa where local councils are being dominated by people at higher levels. Thus, all efforts to implement the rural employment guarantee Act, that has been styled on the lines of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India, failed in South Africa because of restricted access to financial resources. Now, even the COVID testing, tracing and treatment in South Africa have lagged because of this weakening of local councils.
The constitutional duties of the panchayats are listed under Schedule 9, Schedule 11 and Schedule 12 of the Indian Constitution. Its makers foresaw that a major health emergency in the country, like the present contagion, would require a resolution at both rural and urban levels. So they devised a mechanism called the District Planning Committee, on which members elected to the panchayats would have a major representation as compared to those elected to municipal bodies. According to legislation under Article 243G, panchayats have the power and authority to enable them to function as institutions of self-government in respect of preparation of plans and implementation of schemes for economic development and social justice. The 73rd Amendment left the decision to delegate powers, functions and finances to PRIs to the State legislatures. Item 23 of Schedule 11 of the Constitution relates to the empowerment of PRIs where health and sanitation are concerned, including hospitals, primary health centres and dispensaries, which is significant in view of the current pandemic. States have fulfilled the constitutional mandate to empower the PRIs to look into health and sanitation, which are intimately connected with COVID-19 and where such responsibilities are institutionally exercised through hospitals, primary healthcare centres and dispensaries under their overall supervision. A staunch advocate of democratic decentralisation and a former Union Panchayati Raj Minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, says that the pandemic has affected many vital areas and vulnerable sections of rural society. First it has hit women and child development where Anganwadi workers along with auxiliary nurses, midwives and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) are responsible for development of children, pregnant women and lactating mothers. Second, mentally and physically challenged people, who are not able to access medical care, have become even more vulnerable. While people with money and those belonging to higher castes in rural India would be able to access medical care due to their influence in society, it would be difficult for people with less money or those belonging to the backward castes to access the same. Lastly, the Public Distribution System (PDS), which can provide food access to the underprivileged, as mandated by Schedule 11, has been hit too.
The optimism that PRIs would be greatly successful in attending to problems brought on by COVID-19 is strengthened by Kerala’s demonstrated capacity to decentralise the planning system in the State and strengthen local governance in matters of health, sanitation, women and child development, welfare of the weaker sections of society, the PDS, feeding of the destitute, free day care centres for the differently-abled and so on.
Financially-empowered panchayats along with the Kudumbashree movement for economic empowerment of women and inclusion of schools and district colleges in the panchayat systems have all led to consolidating holistic efforts to effectively combat the pandemic with minimal loss of lives. Thus, Kerala’s panchayats have smoothly transitioned to take care of those affected by COVID-19.
Similarly, in Karnataka, panchayat level COVID-19 task forces were formed and are working successfully. They comprise primary health centre doctors, auxiliary nurses, midwives, ASHA workers and elected representatives and panchayat-level staff. Present across the State, these task forces have been at the forefront of pandemic management. This has resulted in strict enforcement of lockdowns, disinfection, providing food to the needy, ensuring the supply of essential services, and so on.
Over the years, Odisha has witnessed strengthening of panchayats, which have played an important part in combating natural disasters. As a result, during the pandemic-induced reverse migration of labourers, the role of panchayats became crucial. The State Government worked in close coordination with PRIs and delegated the powers of the District Collectors to the latter to work towards containing the spread of the Coronavirus in each panchayat. Women-led PRIs have proactively engaged with Self Help Groups (SHGs) in running free kitchens and in making face masks to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Such responses from the PRIs are very encouraging as they are going the extra mile to ensure continuity of essential services, especially for the vulnerable. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, has applauded the efforts of the PRIs to fight the pandemic and remarked that the stronger the PRIs, the stronger the democracy of a country. In fact, in order to strengthen PRIs, the Government has announced two projects: The e-Gram Swaraj App, where details of the development work of panchayats and the funds will be available and the Swamitwa Yojana (ownership plan), where each property in the village will be mapped through drones after which a certificate of ownership will be issued. This will help in removing confusion about the property and help in proper policy planning, too. Further, the Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj has exhorted all States to use a tool for assessing the community response to COVID-19 at the village and panchayat level for timely action in containing the spread of the virus and vector- borne diseases. This includes eight areas for action at the village level: Creating awareness regarding preventive measures, solidarity to address the associated stigma, support for home as well as community quarantine, help in surveillance activities’ identification, support to needy families, ensuring availability of routine healthcare services, prompt response in case of positive cases and maintaining hygiene and sanitation at the village level. The information in this check list will help the panchayats to self-assess their preparedness and identify what more they may do. This will also help the health department to take timely and corrective measures.
To effectively handle the crisis, it is important to look at the number of recoveries and the number of fatalities along with co-morbidities. There exists a positive correlation between operating the PRIs and effectively handling the pandemic. COVID-19 should be a lesson for the current and future governments to make PRIs an inclusive part of governance. The challenges pertaining to provision of sufficient protection kits for frontline panchayat workers, inadequate funding, dilution of powers of panchayats in normal times, strengthening management information systems for accurate panchayat-level data, and so on, remain to be addressed as policy priorities. Only then Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of “an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice”, would be fulfilled.
(The writer is CEO and Editorial Director, IMPRI)